Glimmers of non-autocentric urbanism in Austin

Austin, with a population of just under a million, is now the 11th largest city in the United States.1 Both the city of Austin and its urban area grew by more than 16% between 2010 and 2016. No other U.S. with more than 250,000 people in 2010 grew this much. Austin generally ranks near the top in various measures of the importance of the tech industry too. For, example, in Richard Florida’s ranking of global cities by venture capital investment, Austin ends up between much larger Toronto and Shanghai, and tenth in the United States.2

As it happens, Austin was by far the largest North American city I’d never been to, and I spent three days there just before Christmas.

I was struck by several things:

[1] Pedestrians are not rare in Austin’s downtown. I wouldn’t say that I came across any sidewalks that were really crowded, even at noon on a weekday, but downtown Austin certainly has more pedestrians than, say, the downtowns of much larger Houston and Dallas. The proximity of the University of Texas with its student population of more than 50,000 may be a factor here. So surely is the amount of residential land use in, and on the edge of, downtown (see just below). The large homeless population contributes too, although I’ll bet the city fathers would rather that no one noticed that.

[2] There’s a huge amount of new mid- and (especially) high-rise residential construction in central Austin.

Central Austin. Pedestrian routes. Apartment buildings. Capital MetroRail.

Central Austin. Base GIS data from the BBBike.org and MetroExtracts versions of OpenStreetMap, modified somewhat. Data on tall buildings from Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. Most “pedestrian facilities” are open to bicycles. A couple of the “pedestrian facilities” on the edge of downtown are protected bicycle lanes.

There are numerous residential buildings over 100 m tall, including the not yet quite completed Independent, which will soon replace its neighbor the Austonian as the highest American residential tower west of the Mississippi. Austin may be the only big city in the United States whose downtown skyline is dominated by residential buildings:

Part of Austin’s downtown from south of the river.

These new buildings are most definitely not TODs; they all come with a great deal of parking. It’s not altogether clear that a, say, fifty-story building whose major entrance is a ramp to a multi-floor parking facility necessarily makes much of a contribution to downtown “vibrancy,” but it’s absolutely true that an awful lot of people are, at least in theory, attracted to the idea of “downtown living” in Austin (prices are high for Texas), and you do see at least a few apartment-dwellers walking around the central city.

[3] There’s quite an impressive set of paved and unpaved “hiking/biking” trails stretching along both sides of the Colorado River of Texas, which lies just south of downtown (see map, above). On a cool Sunday afternoon, these trails were much busier than any downtown sidewalk. I was struck (as I was while visiting the Atlanta BeltLine the previous month) that most trail users were walking. Runners and cyclists were a minority. This is definitely not the case on recreational trails in North American cities where neighborhood walking is commoner.

A small section of the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail in Austin.

I was particularly impressed by the pedestrian-only bridges and walkways over the River, one of which—the Pfluger Bridge—has become a multi-use meeting place.

The Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge, Austin.

Of special note are two trails that run (or will run) along creeks that pass through downtown into the Colorado and that have a history of causing floods. The first trail runs along Shoal Creek. A rough path along this creek has been there for a while. It’s narrow, winding, irregular, and perhaps not very safe. In so far as I could see, the Shoal Creek Trail is little used. But its lowest portion is being improved radically, and this may change things. Waller Creek, on the eastern side of downtown, is scheduled to get an even more ambitious recreational path, as well as a series of parks.

[4] Austin has had a passenger rail line since 2010: a 51 km line between the eastern edge of downtown and the city’s northern suburbs.

Capital MetroRail’s Downtown station.

On weekdays, Capital MetroRail (as it’s called) provides fairly reasonable (roughly) half-hour service during rush hours and hourly service at midday. It also provides hourly or better service on Friday and Saturday evenings. (But note that most trains don’t go all the way to the end of the line; the northernmost station in particular has little service.) MetroRail uses self-propelled cars on an only modestly upgraded single-track line, and it was built fairly cheaply, for something like $100,000,000. Its supporters note that rush-hour trains are crowded (and that as a result extra runs will soon be added). Its detractors point out that only something like 2900 passengers a day use the system, and that per-passenger subsidies are of necessity enormous. The ride seemed pleasant enough when I took it, but no one would say that the off-peak trains were crowded. There was free wifi—and two longish waits at sidings for trains going in the other direction. The two stations nearest downtown have an impressive number of mid-rise apartment buildings either just opened or under construction that, it’s claimed, were built because of the presence of MetroRail. I didn’t see crowds of people walking between the train stations and these buildings, however.

Austin probably provides the closest thing to what might loosely call a traditional urban lifestyle that Texas offers—at least close to downtown, walking is an option—and it’s clear that this has quite a lot of appeal for many people.

Away from this rather small zone, most people in Austin, as in the rest of urban Texas (as well as in much of the United States), apparently lead completely autocentric lives. Despite the good work of Capital Metro, only approximately 4% of the population of the city of Austin took public transit to work in 2016. Downtown’s eastern edges are given over almost entirely to parking lots (plus a couple of homeless shelters and—incongruously—several new hotels). And, at rush hour, the arterials leading out of downtown and the bridges over the Colorado are jammed with traffic. When it comes to urbanism, Austin is on the whole not quite as weird as some of its inhabitants would like to think it is.

  1. Its urban area, with a population of something like 2,000,000, ranks much lower, approximately 31st—it’s easy to annex in Texas, and Austin, like other Texas cities, has a smaller ring of suburbs around it than most American cities.
  2. Richard Florida. The new urban crisis. New York : Basic Books, 2017. Page 44.
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